Tuesday, March 31, 2020

“Emma” and “Charade”: Close Encounters of the Romantic Kind

Now that I am housebound because of Covid-19 worries, I’ve been checking out a lot of feature films on my not-so-big TV screen. One I just watched was Emma, which Universal Studios was pragmatic enough – now that movie theatres are shuttered – to air on video very soon after its theatrical release. It’s not for me to comment on how the business model for Hollywood is being upended by the current pandemic. But I can record my feelings about this latest in a long line of Jane Austen adaptations for the screen. Emma, written by Austen in 1815, is a witty novel of manners about a very young woman who delights in her abilities as a matchmaker. Blessed with wealth, wit, and good looks, she takes charge of the social life of her small English village, with nearly disastrous consequences for all involved. But since Austen’s vision is a comic one, things right themselves in the end.

Emma has been filmed more than once. Gwyneth Paltrow played the title role in 1996, just after Amy Heckerling wrote and directed a delectable American adaptation called Clueless, set amongst the well-dressed teens at Beverly Hills High. The current version, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, has a welcome satiric edge, underscored by Autumn de Wilde’s witty directorial flourishes and by an offbeat score. I enjoyed it as a welcome diversion, but found little emotional reason to connect with this material. Maybe it’s a matter of timing. The characters in Emma, whatever their social station, all have their place in a tight-knit small community: there’s little chance for interaction with the outside world. But unlike those of us who are sheltering in place today, they don’t feel themselves the least bit isolated. Even ladies of leisure find so much to do. There are balls, picnics, small shopping expeditions; a young woman, like Emma, can also occupy herself with sketching, singing, playing the piano, and poking her nose into everyone else’s business. And, of course, just getting dressed and crimped and groomed (in the rather hideous sack-like fashions of the early nineteenth century) takes a fair amount of time.  No sweatpants for even the stay-at-homes.

British character actors are always worth watching, and one of the treasures of this production is the great Bill Nighy as Emma’s discombobulated father. But one question I  keep finding myself asking: why is it that today’s leading men (like Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley) seem to underscore their masculinity through their failure to brush their hair? The heroes of old movies perhaps overdid the patent-leather-hair look, but I for one am tired of all those unkempt locks.

As a change of pace from Emma, I followed up with one of Hollywood’s great Golden Age treats: 1963”s Charade. This Stanley Donen classic stars an adorable Audrey Hepburn opposite an impeccable, every-hair-in-place Cary Grant. Instead of a quaint English village, we get Paris; instead of matchmaking we get murder, though the film’s violence is so deliciously low-key that there’s nary a fear of taking the story too solemnly. Hepburn’s heroine may be far more experienced than Emma—she’s a well-heeled married lady whose husband has just been offed under mysterious circumstances—but she is almost equally naïve in the ways of the world. And Grant’s character, with his shifting names and identities, represents a tough nut she has to crack. In one respect, Charade and Emma work in parallel: both feature a sweet young thing being wooed and won by a much older man. There was a 25-year-age difference between Audrey Hepburn (at 34) and Cary Grant (at 59), but no one has ever objected. 

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